From Endurance to Dressage
So much happened at this weekend's show that you'll have to forgive me if I ramble. To begin with, our scores were terrible - not in the 40s, though, so we definitely improved over the show in Santa Barbara in November. Even with really low scores, I came home elated.
The weekend started off with a warm up ride on Friday evening with trainer Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. He met me at SCEC so that he could work with both Izzy and me in the warm up ring and the dressage court. Izzy was his regular oh-my-gosh-I-am-about-to-die self, but Sean was expecting that, and he was completely unfazed by it. How many times have you heard the trainer say, don't worry about, it's no big deal, doesn't matter ... ? If you've heard it 10 times, Sean said it 1,000 times. Like, literally every other stride.
In no time at all, I was taking his advice. When I mentioned to Sean that I was feeling like the worst rider out there, he shot right back at me, "Don't worry about it because no one is looking at you. Instead, they are all worrying about being the worst rider themselves." Somehow, Sean was able to take the burden of doing well off my shoulders. He wasn't going to quit when we sucked. He wasn't going to quit when I made a mistake. He wasn't going to quit when Izzy made a mistake. He is prepared for the long haul. Instead of one and done, he was looking at this show (and however many after) as a stepping stone to help Izzy build confidence in me. He firmly believes in the idea that improving just 1% at a time will reap huge rewards in the end.
Over the past two weeks, I had already taken two lessons with Sean, but the third time was the charm. During Friday's warmup ride, nothing about his advice surprised me, and I started to understand what he meant. His favorite thing to say, to me anyway, is ask him lots of questions, but they need to be questions that Izzy can answer correctly. Right now, those questions are very, very easy. Can you flex left, can you flex right? Can you move away from my leg? Can you lengthen your stride just a teeny bit? Can you collect just a teeny bit? And so on.
Sean assured me that Izzy will start to answer those questions more and more reliably, and once he does, the questions can start to be a little more challenging. It will probably be a slow process, but as Izzy begins to trust that I will ask questions that he can answer, he will begin to feel more and more comfortable at shows. He will know the routine. I can already see results after only a few weeks of working with Sean.
The other thing that Sean said to me (again and again) was to be more elastic in my arms. While he has mentioned this each time before, I started to feel what he meant, especially in the canter. As hard as it is, Sean had me really think about moving with Izzy even when I am fighting to gain control. I can't pin my elbows to my sides; they have to continue moving, as does my seat.
That Friday evening warm up ride wasn't spectacular, it wasn't even good, but both Izzy and I learned a lot. After the lesson, as planned, I trailered back to Sean's barn where Izzy would stay the night. Sean and I both thought it might help Izzy relax to be at a quieter barn. It was the right decision. Izzy ate and drank well, and looked rested each morning. Sean's barn is super quiet which was just what Izzy needed. Each morning, I braided him in the cross ties without the distraction of horses being moved here and there and whinnying at each other. It was just Izzy and me in the near dark, together, alone.
After giving him a few minutes to relax in his stall after braiding, I loaded him back into the trailer for the 20 minute drive to SCEC. I didn't get a day stall. Instead, I tied him to the trailer, hung a hay bag and a bucket of water (which he drained each day), and went about my day. He was a complete and total rock star.
For the first time in longer than I can remember, I actually slept through the Friday night before a show without waking up even once. Normally, I wake up several times certain that I've overslept or just listening for anything going amiss in the barn. Camping out at Sean's place was good for both Izzy and me. In fact, I loved it so much at STC Dressage that I've asked if we can do it that way for the near future. Sean graciously agreed.
Whew. All of that, and we still haven't even made it to day one of the show. Stay tuned. This might take a while.
To be continued ...
... And probably looking like one, too.
On Saturday, Izzy and I made another trip to Ventura County to ride with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. It was our second lesson in less than a week. We have a third lesson on Friday afternoon. While we were letting Izzy relax after the long drive - it's nearly three hours, I asked Sean if he had ever had to fire a student. I wanted to gauge what my chances for success might be. Based on his answer, it sounds like he hasn't had to fire very many students, so it looks like I am good for the time being.
I had no idea how simply riding with a different trainer could make me feel like a beginner all over again. I am guessing it has to be a lot like getting divorced and dating someone new. We get so comfortable with our spouses, often times ignoring the bad which leads you to feel pretty confident. It's only when you're with someone new that you realize you're not perfect. I've never been divorced, but I can imagine it. I have tons of imperfections that my husband has either grown to love or simply ignores. Would a new guy be so forgiving?
Sean is looking at my riding through very fresh eyes. He hasn't had years to grow accustomed to my riding weaknesses and bad habits and as such, he feels an obligation to fix them. Thank goodness. Of all of the many aha moments I had during Saturday's lesson, this was my favorite: There is a lot to fix in my riding which means that as I fix things, Izzy is only going to get better and better. I saw it happen immediately during the lesson. Every time I fixed a little bit of stiffness in my body, I could feel Izzy respond.
My Pivo wasn't very well behaved for this lesson so I didn't get the greatest video. I tried placing it closer to Sean so I could record his end of the conversation, but it didn't work that well. I do pay attention when I ride though, so I tried to remember what he had said as I watched the video on Sunday. Here are some things that really resonated with me.
1) Rather than using so much inside rein, I need to use the inside leg to teach Izzy to bend. If I am consistent enough, he will learn that the inside leg means that he should bend through his body. Even going straight, I can apply the inside leg to ask him to bend and soften.
2) In the leg yield in particular, ask once for the sideways movement, and then QUIT asking and ALLOW him to go sideways. Instead of using steady pressure which is what I do, bump him, and then STOP asking. If he doesn't move sideways, give him another bump with my leg to tell him sideways again. Boy, did this ever work great! Allowing Izzy to do his job took away a lot of his resistance and bracing.
3) Be elastic in your arms. Sean described it as though my arms were made of those resistance bands. Some are stretchier than others, but ALL of them stretch. I feel like I am giving through my elbows, but Sean wants more. Even when Izzy is resisting, he wants me to still have at least some elasticity in my arms. I felt this particularly in the canter.
4) In the travers, haunches in, the horse's head should be straight. I am pulling the inside rein to try to achieve the bend in his body. According to Sean, this is not correct. The horse should travel straight down the long side with his head and neck, and with his hind legs he should step in. I have always ridden it with a slight inside bend, almost like a half pass that goes forward. Once I let go of the inside rein, Izzy was able to carry his haunches in with less resistance.
5) In the turn on the haunches, especially for Izzy who loses the rhythm of the walk, ride him forward. It's okay at Second Level for the circle to be a little big. More than one trainer has told me this, but I haven't been able to get Izzy to make the circle bigger. Letting him step forward achieves this. What felt like a huge circle wasn't nearly as big as it felt. As soon as I let Izzy move forward in the turn on the haunches, he kept a nice walk rhythm.
After skimming through the hour long video of the lesson, I was again surprised at how relaxed Izzy looked. He may not feel relaxed, but he doesn't appear as tense as it feels. As we finished this second lesson, I realized that I have so much to work on, but even with that mountain looming, I was still really encouraged. We won't be fantastic at the SCEC show this weekend, but I don't think it's going to feel as out of control as it felt at November's hot mess of a show. If Sean can affect a little more change in my riding, I know the results will be immediately felt by Izzy.
I haven't been this encouraged in a long time!
Aren't they all? I like to say that if your weekend/vacation isn't good or busy, you aren't doing it right. Long ago, I learned that weekends are precious and as such, should never be wasted.
One of the first jobs for the weekend was installing a screen between Speedy's and Izzy's feeders. My boys would probably be very happy living together in one very large pasture, but since their nutritional needs are not the same, they have to live with a fence dividing the field in half. Speedy easily lives on a few flakes of alfalfa a day (with a small amount of beet pulp and rice bran). Izzy goes bonkers on alfalfa which means he lives on mountains of grass hay and a HUGE amount of beet pulp and rice bran (with a bunch of other stuff thrown in).
The problem is that when the new cover was built, the cross fence was replaced with one that made it easier for the horses to stick through heads through. Izzy's feeder was mounted in the corner to keep his hay dry when it rained which meant Speedy happily munched on Izzy's grass hay. Izzy didn't mind as he helped himself to Speedy's alfalfa. My boys never received the memo about their individual dietary restrictions. Eventually, we had no idea who was eating what except that Izzy's energy level spiked horribly last week which suggested he was getting too much alfalfa.
The welded mesh panel that we used is great because it's extremely sturdy and fairly safe. I say "fairly" because the ends can be very sharp. We cut off the excess and filed it down smooth, but there is still that corner piece at the top that I am not thrilled with. Unfortunately, I can't cut the top piece off because the next "row" of squares would be lower than the fence which would leave a gap that I would not be happy with either.
I would love to cut everything that is above the top rail and everything beyond the center support pole, but I don't have access to the kind of tools I would need. I will probably just wrap the corner piece with some duct tape until I come up with a better solution (or the right tools). The corner is not sharp, but it is a corner, and corners have a way of causing all sorts of expensive damage. For now, the panel is working the way it was intended, and everyone is getting the correct hay.
On Thursday afternoon, my mom called from Oregon and said she was on her way. I wasn't expecting her, so it was a lovely surprise. My husband had a tee time to golf, so I was secretly pleased that I got to spend the day alone with my mom. She loves coming to the ranch with me, so after stopping by one of her favorite local stores for their brand of balsamic vinegar, we drove out to the ranch where she sat in the shade watching me ride. I am not sure why that was fun for her, but she swore it was.
After riding, we fed both boys their lunch, and freshened up their waters. Later, mom and I stopped by the local grill for fish and chips, and then we made the trip downtown to Rosemary's Family Creamery. One of us had a small bowl of strawberry ice cream while the other enjoyed a delicious tin roof sundae with vanilla ice cream and chocolate fudge, both made on the premises. The whole thing was served with a small cup of toasted, salted peanuts. Let's just say one of us left Rosemary's with a tiny bit of a belly ache.
My mom left on Saturday morning - she wanted to be home in time to visit her church's Easter service, so I was able to make another trip to Moorpark for a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. More on that in the next day or two, but my friend Valerie agreed to have her lesson immediately after mine so that I could watch at least one lesson.
Valerie is bringing along a somewhat new-to-her-horse (she's had him about 5 months) who has some tension issues of his own. Listening to Sean's coaching while watching Valerie ride Cinco really helped me understand what Sean had been telling me. Every trainer has their own way of explaining things, so I very much appreciated the opportunity to watch and listen.
On Sunday, I packed in yet another chore. More on that tomorrow.
All joking aside, Izzy and I are trying some new and different things. If you missed yesterday's post, Izzy did his very best to show that while I have a very serious game face, it's still pretty easy to make me look anything but knowledgeable. If you work with Izzy and me, be prepared for some fun and games; no one has ever thought to call me a Dressage Queen.
Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage, is a very accomplished rider. He hasn't yet earned his USDF Gold Medal - he's missing the two Grand Prix scores, but he's young, and he has a fabulous pony, Clooney, that's almost there. The pony, owned by my friend Valerie, is a firecracker with talent to spare. I suspect that Sean will have that Gold Medal sooner than I'll have my Silver.
A quick glance at Sean's scores shows a rider with obvious talent. His median scores are solidly in the mid-60s with his max scores in the 70s and 80s. He has shown nearly fifty horses, and many of them he has ridden ten, twenty, and even eighty times! Sean has ridden many breeds, including Morgans, an American Paint Horse, and even a Westfalen. Taking on Izzy, a warmblood with a LOT of Thoroughbred, is right up his alley.
While I knew Monday's lesson with Sean wasn't going to completely change how I do things, I was eager to see what advice Sean had to offer. For the past few weeks, I've known that I would be training with Sean, so I've been riding Izzy with Sean's voice in my ear. I remembered what we had worked on two years ago, and while I've implemented what I learned in that one lesson, it hasn't been my focus. For the past few weeks, his advice has been my sole focus.
Without any fanfare, Sean grabbed a seat up on his viewing platform, and I tucked the earbuds in. As it was two years ago, the wind was gusting, so the earbuds really helped me be able to hear Sean without constantly yelling, "What???" As I sit here watching the video - I can't hear anything over the wind, I am shocked by how quiet and steady Izzy was right from the beginning. At the time, he felt very braced and tense, but looking at him, it isn't nearly as terrible as it felt.
The lesson was very simple as Sean mostly needed to get a general impression. We did a fair amount of trotting on the 20-meter circle, some leg yields, some canter work, and a bit of trot half pass. Through it all, Sean made suggestions. My inside right hand likes to get too close to Izzy's withers. My elbows aren't following enough in the canter. My inside leg isn't holding steadily enough in the half pass.
We all agreed that Izzy needs to get his neck down and out, but achieving that is why I am making the commitment to drive six hours round trip for a 45 minute lesson. When I asked Sean what I should focus on this week, his reply was "small questions. Ask for little things and see if there is a reaction." Sean wants me to work on lateral work while still thinking about going forward. He wants to me to ask for flexion in the canter work - something I've already been doing. Can Izzy flex left and right? Can he move off my leg? Can he lengthen a bit and then come back?
The answer isn't just ONE thing. There is no magic bullet, no "cure." It's just going to take work on my part to keep Izzy moving back and forth bit by bit until he learns to stay relaxed. Overall, things felt far worse than they appear in the nearly hour long video that Pivo captured for me. The "giraffing" of his neck looks nothing like it feels, and the bracing though his poll is nearly invisible on the video.
For so long I've felt like we've been a hot mess, not making any progress. It's clear that isn't true. The one thing Sean did say was how fabulous Izzy looks. He said that Izzy is a completely different horse from the one he saw two years ago. Thank goodness because THAT horse was for sale. Sean remarked that two years ago, Izzy wouldn't let me in. He had no desire to work with me. Now, Sean feels that Izzy and I are having a conversation where he listens and tries to work with me.
While I love having the earbuds in, and Sean loves not having to yell all day long, I miss being able to watch the video with his commentary. When we go down again this weekend, I may try to set the Pivo up right in front of Sean so that it can catch his feedback. The video might not be as great, but hearing his suggestions is the most important part.
Overall, I am really encouraged by what I saw in the video. We have another lesson this weekend, and then we'll head down for a show the weekend after. Sean will give us a lesson the night before the show and then coach us through Saturday's tests. Unfortunately, he had long ago made plans for Sunday, so he won't be able to be there for day two. We'll manage.
In the future, Valerie and I will plan shows together with Sean. Valerie is a good friend and also one of Sean's clients. I am speaking for everyone when I say all three of us are excited about this show season, but I know I am right.
Izzy and I will (probably) never be perfect, but we're headed in the right direction!
Yesterday, I took a lesson with Sean Cunningham, owner and trainer at STC Dressage. I was a little nervous about it. While I appreciate constructive criticism, I work best when I am coached by positive feedback. Yes, I need to know what I am doing wrong, but I really need to know what I am doing right. I was putting myself in Sean's hands with fingers crossed.
Riding with a new trainer is a lot like a job interview except that you both know you have the job already. Agreeing to take on a new rider carries risks. What if she turns out to be a pain in the butt? Can you fire her for being annoying?
Deciding to ride with a new trainer is equally risky. What if he's mean? What if he makes you cry? What if he thinks you're an incompetent idiot? I wanted to make a good impression. I cleaned all of my tack the day before, and Izzy was clean and shiny. We were prepared to dazzle and look like a team someone would want to coach.
In Izzy's mind, we were somewhere different, and the impression he made was the last thing he cared about. And that's how Izzy ruined any chance of us making a good impression. A good story though, we've got that covered.
Yep. At the end of the lesson, as we chatted about some final thoughts, Izzy gave two great shakes of his head, and his bridle flew off. And then he looked directly at Pivo as if to gauge my future expression. He never moved a muscle. I hopped off to retrieve my shiny, clean bridle from the dirt, and stared at him in disbelief. He looked so proud of himself!
I checked my bridle, sure that something must have broken, but no. It was in perfect shape. Valerie and Sean both laughed, and we were all grateful that Izzy hadn't spooked and bolted with his bridle dangling between his legs.
I am certain we made an impression, I am just not sure which one it was.
About the Writer and Rider
I am a lifelong rider.
I began endurance riding in 1996 where I ultimately completed five, one-day 100 mile races, the 200-mile Death Valley Encounter, and numerous other 50, 65, and 75 mile races. I began showing dressage in 2010.
Welcome to my dressage journey.
About Speedy G
Speedy went from endurance horse to dressage horse. After helping me earn a USDF Bronze medal in the summer of 2020, he is now semi-retired. Speedy is a 2004, 15'1 hand, purebred Arabian gelding. His Arabian Horse Registry name is G Ima Starr FA.
Izzy was started as a four-year old and then spent the next 18 months in pasture growing up. I bought him as a six-year old, and together, we are showing at Second Level. He is a 2008, 16'3 hand warmblood gelding. His Rheinland Pfalz-saar International (RPSI) name is Imperioso.
National Rider Awards
State Rider Awards
State Horse Awards
CDS Sapphire Rider Award
Third Level: 63.514%
Third Level: 62.105%
2021 Show Season
(r) Ride-a-Test Clinic
(Q) Must Qualify
2021 Pending …
5/16-17 El Sueño (***)
5/23 TMC (*)
6/12-13 SB (***) OR
6/19-20 El Sueño (***)
6/27 TMC (*)
7/3-4 Burbank (***) OR
7/17-18 El Sueño (***)
7/25 TMC (*)
8/14-15 RAAC (Q) (***)
8/29 TMC (*)
2021 Completed …
10/24-25 SCEC (***)
11/7-11/8 SB (***)
4/10-11 SCEC (***)
2021 Qualifying Scores
Regional Adult Amateur Competition (RAAC)
2nd Level Qualifying
3 Scores/2 Judges/60%:
Score 1: 60.610% Bhathal
2nd Level Qualifying
5 Scores/4 Judges/61%:
Stuff I Read